If you have not yet managed to have a ride in a Tesla then we urge you to do so.

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The feeling of being propelled from 0-60 mph in 2.3 seconds in a vehicle with no emissions and no engine noise whatsoever is a remarkable experience. Add to that a car that has near perfect weight distribution, an energy recovery system and the hardware ready to support full autonomous drive and you soon realise that most of the other cars on the road today are already well on their way to obsolescence. 

The journey in the Tesla Model S was just the beginning of an inspirational evening spent in the company of our guests at The Tesla showroom in Canary Wharf. As well as having the opportunity to experience the vehicles, we also spent time in the company of Tesla’s former Director for Western Europe and now CEO of cyber security firm Smoothwall - Georg Ell. It’s fair to say that the time with Georg was just as remarkable as the time we spent in the Model S.

Georg was there to share some of the things that he learnt at Tesla and to give us an insight into what it takes to bring innovative and genuinely disruptive technology to the global marketplace. 

When we set up The Forge 5 years ago, our ambition was to bring new thinking to the big strategic issues that businesses were grappling with. The kinds of challenges where the established ways of thinking and acting were no longer working.

We created the business because there are some uniquely innate human skills that can lead to new thinking. The ability to question, to challenge, to doubt. With skill and experience, you can look at the same problems, the same data and the same learning, and yet emerge with entirely new strategies, approaches and solutions. 

Tesla is arguably a business that has done this better than any other in history: their refusal to accept the established norms; their refusal to accept what has been done before; their refusal to accept compromise. They live and breathe that ability to look at the same things, but come up with an entirely new solution or way of thinking.

Georg covered some fascinating ground, but it was his perspective on the unique leadership culture and ways of working that Elon Musk has embedded in Tesla.

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Here’s a précis of what really resonated with us all who had the pleasure of hearing him talk:

Georg on disruptive leadership:

  • Only the laws of physics are immutable: Everything else is essentially chemistry or biology and can be messed with. In order to be genuinely disruptive, you have to start with an ethos of looking to first principles. Don’t start by looking at what has been done before or benchmarking yourself against competitors. Start by looking at what you want to achieve and then forget the established rules.

  • Constantly repeat your purpose: Disruption is fundamentally about belief, a step into the unknown; once you establish that something is possible, it is really then just a question of probability.

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  • Excellence is just passing the grade: Act smart and expect those around you to do the same. There is actually such a thing as good and bad failure. ‘High Quality Failure’ is when you had a well thought through plan and it didn’t work out. Bad failure is when you finish up failing because you were winging it. 

  •  Provide clear goals and motivate your team: People need support when they are being asked to do the remarkable and cross boundaries. Context is everything; if you have good people and they fail at a task, it is usually because the leader has failed to set a good enough context. Be strong on context and maniacal on the detail.

  • Always act for the good of the company: Do the right thing and when it comes to reporting bad news do it quickly and LOUDLY.

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Georg on Tesla’s way of working

One thing that really struck us, is to hear the extent to which everything in the business is geared towards moving faster. Here are the elements that struck us as the most intriguing: 

  • An intensity bias for action and measurement: Tesla is a business that encourages experimentation and iteration. Frustrated by traffic, he had an idea that tunnels were the answer. His instructions to his team on a Friday: Start digging in the company car park and see where you get by Monday AM!

  •   Tesla is a ruthless meritocracy: Focus not on hierarchy, but on building networks. They want everyone to be focused on the fastest path to results - going straight to the person best able to solve the problem at hand, rather than through layers of hierarchy.

  • Squeezing the middle: Tesla is weary of the middle management layer, believing it is often a big impediment to progress; managers are encouraged to be effective coaches and conduits for progress and NOT ‘information dribblers.’

Do it for the customer

Underpinning a lot of what Georg talked about is the notion that nothing should be allowed to slow down the organisation or be allowed to jeopardise the customer experience.

Elon reputedly sees the customer experience as a diamond, in which a single flaw can destroy the value of an otherwise highly valuable gemstone. He cares about the details - when the finance agreements for the cars were being created, Elon insisted that all the finance agreements were reduced in length to just a single page, he instructed his employees to remove anything in the contract designed to protect Tesla – his logic being that Tesla would never sue its own customers.

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At its most fundamental level, Georg’s talk highlighted that today if you want to get something genuinely innovative or disruptive to market, you have to be prepared to challenge everything, assume nothing and stop playing by the established rules.

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Like Tesla we believe in the importance of returning to first principles. . Question, challenge and doubt. Start with a fresh perspective, challenge everything and beware of received wisdom. It is key to finding new answers to old problems.

Georg is the first to acknowledge that no one (in spite of their brilliance) is perfect; nonetheless as you sit in the car and are flung literally headlong into the future you realise that Elon must be doing something right. True disruptors rarely adhere to the norm.

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